Monday, January 23, 2012

Motian, Haden, and Allen's "Etudes:" Carried on Currents

I have a many friends and acquaintances who are serious, if not professional, jazz musicians, so when Paul Motian passed away in November, my news feeds lit up with video clips and retrospective posts.  I love my jazz, but my collection of recordings is relatively small in comparison to a lot of the people I know.  I like to think, however, that what my jazz collection lacks in breadth it makes up in depth, so I add titles to it with a degree of caution.  I don't just let any old album in.  After all this attention on Motian, though, I was on the lookout for a characteristic recording.

Paul Slavens is one of my Facebook friends (although in real life I'm sure I am barely another familiar face), and as a status update, he cited Etudes as his favorite album with Motian. It sounded quite good from what I could find and, because I respect Slavens as a musician and critic, I trusted that it would be consistent.  I put it on my Amazon wish list.

When I spontaneously earmark an album in this fashion, there is the danger that it will languish on my wish list for months, even years, before it ends up in rotation. My Amazon list has become so bloated, though, that when the holidays come, I am often pleasantly surprised by what ends up under the tree.  This year, my parents ordered Etudes (and even ordered themselves a copy based on Amazon's samples!). I listened to it all the way through for the first time with my mother as we were reading books before going to bed, and we were both taken in by its subtle interplay of tension and mood.

Charlie Haden and Paul Motian had a long professional relationship by the time Etudes was released in 1987, which shows in their seamless interactions on the album. Effortlessly, they propel their performances forward without a trace of analytical thinking. Geri Allen’s melancholic piano gracefully integrates into their established chemistry.  It is a pristine example of masterful, experienced musicians in an expressive act.

After Christmas my wife and I traveled to South Texas to visit her family, and I had a small stack of untested CDs in hand. In cases like this, it’s usually a bit of a gamble to decide what will go over well in close quarters with her. For example, she gave me Syd Barrett's The Madcap Laughs for Christmas, but it did not go over so well as we drove around McAllen (although it did spark some interesting conversation). Etudes, however, was quite an amenable listening experience for everyone who got in the car, and it played pretty much for the duration of the trip.

One morning in McAllen, I was waiting in the car with the Little One as she slept while my wife picked up some breakfast, leaving me alone with Etudes to reflect for a moment.  Ten years ago, I would have probably never found this album.  Thrown out unknowingly into the anonymity of the internet, however, then washed ashore by my parents as a holiday gift, Etudes ended up in my hands like a message in a bottle carried on digital currents.  As it is, the album has turned out to be a great find that has deepened my jazz collection just a little bit more.

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